By Kalpit A Mankikar
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s often repeated maxim is that to understand China, one needs to understand the Communist Party. Last year, the Chinese Communist Party celebrated its centenary. In these 100 years, the Party went on from being a rag-tag guerilla army to one that not only administered over one-sixth of humanity, but also transformed an impoverished nation into the second largest economy. The Great Deluge of the 1980s-1990s shattered the Soviet Union and swept away fraternal regimes in Eastern Europe. Experts posit that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) survived because it was able to adapt and create institutions for political governance.
Considering that there is a sharp divergence between the setup in a democracy and the CCP, political developments may befuddle an ordinary observer. While China remains a one-party state where its 1.4 billion people can’t choose their leader through popular ballot, the CCP has evolved political processes that sustain dialogue between the rulers and the ruled. In a democracy like the US, presidential debates are an institution that helps rival candidates showcase their vision, similarly political parties elsewhere make the public aware of their programmes through manifestoes. The National Congress, which kicked off in China on October 16, is one such institution, and an exercise that takes place twice in a span of a decade and fills in for the election frenzy in democracies. The Congress is an important event in China’s political calendar that charts out policy for the next five years and its leadership bench. On October 16, Xi presented his work report in which he outlined his “achievements” and the future policy trajectory.
Report card of a decade
He listed his successes in poverty alleviation with nearly 100 million people brought out of poverty since his term began in 2012, tackling corruption through his decade-long anti-corruption campaign in which nearly 5 million Communist cadres are under investigation for turpitude. He also sought to justify the Party’s actions in Hong Kong in which the pro-democracy movement was crushed. While Xi primarily addressed the Party faithful and his domestic constituency in China through his work report and address, the leitmotif of his pronouncements was that it is his “strong leadership” that has been able to come to tackle China’s problems. This was unwittingly contrasted with his predecessor Hu Jintao’s tenure that is considered in some circles as a “lost decade”. The optics also seemed to be favouring this narrative with the presence of a feeble and hoary Hu at the proceedings.
Past & clear present danger
On the issue of Taiwan’s reunification, Xi posited that while efforts would be made to bring back the territory peacefully, the Party reserved the right to use force to fulfil its objectives. Furthermore, Xi forcefully asserted to thunderous applause that the “total reunification of China must certainly be realised and it will be realised without doubt”.
In his speech, Xi refuted claims that China was an expansionist power, thus implicit in this assertion is that a “strong” China is now merely taking back what has been prised out of a “weak” Imperial Empire. This has brought to fore the issue of weaponisation of historical claims by autocratic regimes and deployment of this rhetoric to seek retaliation or forcibly occupy territory. A case in point is Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, which incidentally took place soon after Russian President Vladmir Putin met Xi during the Beijing Winter Olympics early this year. Identity politics and geopolitics have played a role in this. China had put forth the principle of ‘one-country, two systems’ (OCTS) to entice Taiwan to join the fold. Under the OCTS approach, Taiwan would be able to keep its autonomy in administration if it merged with the mainland. The 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China by the UK gave the CCP a pilot zone to experiment with the concept. However, it took only a few years for China to dilute the concept of self-rule on the island. In addition to that since the Trump administration, relations between the US and China deteriorated on account of the trade war and the former blocking access to technology, Taiwan began to rise on the firmament with the visits of senior American politicians. Then US Health Secretary Alex Azar and US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island in 2020 and 2022, which is being perceived by China as bestowing the Taiwan government with a semblance of recognition. This coupled with the crystalisation of Taiwanese identity vis-à-vis a Chinese one, has forced Xi to hit out at forces of “Taiwan independence” and foreign interference.
In his work report published, Xi states: “The use of military power needs to be normalised and used in diverse ways… China needs to be able to conduct military operations readily, create a secure environment, deter and control risks and conflicts, and win regional wars.” In his speech, Xi exhorted the People’s Liberation Army must expedite troop training and new strategies to achieve its target of becoming a world-class military. In matters related to defence Xi has gradually upped the ante. Curiously, the communique of 19th Central Committee’s fifth plenary session—an annual conclave of the CCP’s elite that deliberates on policy matters—used the Mandarin war cry of zhǔnbèi bèizhàn that translates to ‘get ready for battle’. One of the main ‘development goals’ announced at the Plenum— was the creation of a modern army by 2027—the year that marks the PLA’s centenary. The Plenum communique listed “modernisation of national defence to realise the unity of a rich country and a strong army” as a focus area. China’s pronouncements seem to indicate that it has virtually given up on the “peaceful reunification” option.
Implications for India
A tense military standoff began along the India-China border in 2020 following bloody clashes in which 20 Indian soldiers were martyred. While there has been disengagement at some friction points, and the Chinese ambassador to Delhi seeking to dial down tensions by saying that, the military discord caused by Galwan has ended, this is not time to lower our guard. PLA Galwan commander Qi Fabao took pride of place as a delegate to the Congress and reportedly an image of the violent clashes in the icy valley featured in a video on the “main achievements” of the Xi era that broadcast at the Great Hall just ahead of Xi’s address. Let’s not forget that in 2006 ahead of a visit to India by then Chinese President Hu Jintao, China’s envoy to India asserted that Arunachal Pradesh was part of Tibet and laid claim to the entire Indian state. Let’s not forget that the CCP draws on ancient Chinese treatises to underpin its strategy, one of which is ‘shēng dōng jī xī), which means create noise in the east and strike in the west. China retains the element of surprise and will strike when least expected.
This article originally appeared in The Times of India.